Rosemary Myers’ Girl Asleep (2015) is preoccupied with crossing borders, from its medium and genre to its narrative focus on the dreamlike imaginings of fourteen-year-old Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore). The film first took shape first as an acclaimed stage play produced through South Australia’s Windmill Theatre and directed by Myers. In the process of adaptation, she necessarily reduced the emphasis on dialogue to embrace cinema’s capacity to visually create an otherworldly mise-en-scène that invites the viewer into an off-kilter version of 1970s Australia. Girl Asleep exudes the unreal quality of canonical fantasies about girls who cross over into magical worlds, channelling heroines such as Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale, and even Sarah Williams in Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986). All of these narratives draw on fairy tale tradition, a genre that is preoccupied with girls who are on the cusp of maturation. In Girl Asleep, Myers’ plays with the boundaries between the real and the fantastic to represent the inner conflicts of a teenage girl grappling with leaving a stage of life that is comfortable and familiar for the unknown of an adult future.

The models of womanhood on offer to Greta are traditional and limited. Her mother, Janet (Amber McMahon), while assertive, strives for a modern housewifely ideal. She not only cooks a Chinese dinner spread bountiful enough to fill an entire Lazy Susan, but co-ordinates her clothing, hair (styled with chopsticks), and background music to match. You know that she has iconic Australian cuisine guru Margaret Fulton’s Book of Chinese Cooking on hand and tizzed the place up with decorating tips from the Australian Women’s Weekly. Greta’s sister, Genevieve (Imogen Archer), is introduced after arriving home late and emerging from her boyfriend Adam’s (Eamon Farren) panel van. She is distanced from Greta’s uncertainty about her identity and belonging, preoccupied with the new and exciting adult realm of sex and relationships

Greta’s approaching fifteenth birthday is the catalyst for confronting the spectre of adulthood with her new-found earnest friend Elliot (Harrison Feldman) enthusing that it will “herald the dawn of a new era”. The bond between the outsiders begins to solidify as Elliott and Greta sit on her small bed and discuss her collection of plastic horses and his own sty of plastic pigs. A platonic friendship free of sexual tension seems to be possible, and Elliott remarks “It’s easy with you, Greta”. However, the unstoppable march toward womanhood means that belonging as a girl becomes oriented around sexuality and opposite-sex friendships become newly problematic.

At school, an intimidating trio of girls deign to invite Greta into their group, but Elliott is unwelcome. The names of the girls – Jade, Amber and Sapphire (Maiah Stewardson with Grace and Fiona Dawson) – and their hostility recall the vitriolic female friendship group in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988), in which each girl is consistently dressed in a different primary colour. The first confrontation between Greta and the trio occurs in the claustrophobic environment of the school toilets. Ringleader Jade interrogates Greta about her kissing technique and preferred quantity of tongue. Tellingly, when Jade eventually presents Greta with her birthday present of a cassette containing an insulting song the girls have written, the barbs rely on her having “no tits”. The cutting lyric “You’re a frigid bitch and your friend is a homo” – set to the melody of “Greensleeves” – relies upon a perennial teen burn that suggests being sexually reserved is one of the worst failings for a girl. Elliott is repeatedly queered, developing an affinity with Greta’s mother that extends to providing her with advice about adding piquancy to her cooking with anchovy paste. Greta’s friendship with a boy who doesn’t perform hegemonic masculinity only magnifies her failure to seek the right kind of heterosexual male attention.

Girl Asleep
Greta is also placed in conflict with parental expectations. When her moustachioed father Conrad (Matthew Whittet) – who could slot into the Australian cricket team alongside Greg Chappell – tucks her into bed, he awkwardly restrains her arms underneath the covers, as if he’s putting down a baby for the night. For Conrad, Greta is still a child. In contrast, her mother is eager to combat her daughter’s shyness and aid her transition to adulthood by throwing an elaborate birthday party. She discusses her plans to have Greta’s hair and make-up done as she rides an exercise bike in the stone-walled lounge room while clad in a leotard, embodying the feminine bodily and domestic ideal. Janet uses the proverb “You always hide your light under a bushel” to encourage Greta to allow herself to blossom into a confident woman. Part of the induction into womanhood inherent in the party involves emphasising Greta’s femininity in the right kind of clothing: an empire-line Jane Austen frock meets ruffled, peach bridesmaid dress. While Elliott’s sexuality is awakened by Greta’s made-over appearance, she is uncomfortable in a dress (will people think she is “a complete deadshit moron”?) and would prefer to wear his suit. Greta needs to find a different path to those she is offered.

Fantasy Worlds and the Journey to Selfhood

The liminal space of girlhood is metaphorically represented through Greta’s experiences in the forest that backs onto her home. On several occasions, she gazes out at the dense trees that lie beyond the backyard; a flaking white picket fence separates the safety of games of tether tennis from the unknown of the wild and of the future. As in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), the barrier between dream/fantasy and reality is blurred through the use of the same actors to play different characters in both worlds. In Oz, Kansas farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke become the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion and dog-hater Almira Gulch transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West. In Girl Asleep, Greta’s parents materialise in different guises in the forest, a location that allows Greta to rehearse her response to growing up before putting it into practice in reality.

Greta connects with her younger self through a music box from her childhood, which she once imagined came from a distant realm inhabited by mystical beings. On the traumatic evening of the party, it becomes a portal through which to explore her subconscious feelings about the end her soon-to-be lost girlhood and her conflicted relationship with her family. After being humiliated by Jade and confronted by Elliott’s romantic desires, Greta returns to her bedroom and the box begins playing by itself. Greta seemingly wakes to find a yellow creature holding the box in her doorway and it then disappears into the forest. Greta chases the creature – seeking to recapture the music box and the childhood it symbolises – and first encounters the aptly named Abject Man, a grotesque version of her father (also played by Matthew Whittet). The sound of dogs or wolves soon becomes ominous, evoking the common fairy tale forest threat, and later connected with the “barking” of the spiteful girl trio. Yet the howling also harks back to early French fairy tales by women writers who used “wolves” as metaphors for the danger posed by predatory men. Greta’s rescuer is The Huldra (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a female forest creature derived from Scandinavian folklore. This warrior girl lives capably in the forest and knows how to defend herself and others, providing Greta with a vision of strong, independent femininity. The Huldra furnishes Greta with the necessary advice to find her way home and avoid the threat of predators. On the way, she encounters the Frozen Woman (also played by Amber McMahon), a beautiful white-clad analogue of her mother, who contemplates her own lost youth as she smashes a different music box. Through her forest journey, Greta finally crosses the threshold of girlhood and the Frozen Woman tells Greta: “You and I, we’re the same. You’re just like me now.” In the surreal forest, as in reality, Greta’s parents are powerless to aid Greta in negotiating the transition to adulthood. Like Dorothy in Oz – who discovers that the key to her heart’s desire resided within her from the beginning of her quest – Greta must undertake a physical journey to awaken and appreciate the qualities that she already possesses.

Girl Asleep

After evading the wolves and Abject Man and crossing a river, Greta wakes on the ground on the home side of the picket fence. When she returns to the party, French lounge singer Benoit Tremet appears in the form of the sexually-forward Adam and, for an unsettling moment, his voice is that of Elliott’s expressing his desire “to make sweet, sweet love” to Greta. Music is imbricated with sexuality when Benoit makes advances on Greta and tells her that because “she went through the gate” – transitioning into adulthood – that she must listen to his song. The music box tune, he assures her, is no longer useful now that she has left childhood. Yet Greta rejects the expected trajectory for girls, and Benoit’s seductive charms, affirming that she wants “her own song”. While the girls and women in her life represent kinds of femininity that do not comfortably fit Greta, The Huldra provides an inspiring vision of a radical kind of powerful girl.

The unexpected result of her mother pushing Greta to reveal herself is that the self she unfurls is entirely unconventional. Though the party dress prompts a normalising transformation in Elliott, who instantaneously has romantic feelings for Greta, being forced into an uncomfortable role helps her to strongly articulate herself and what makes her confident. Greta rejects the option of teen girlhood based on becoming sexually desirable and available, subverting the “don’t come a knockin’ if this thing’s a rockin’” expectation. Instead she uses a traditional site of lost virginity in Australian surf culture to reject feminine norms. In a scene in which Adam’s panel van shakes, the viewer momentarily imagines the awkward rite of passage taking place inside. Greta and Elliott emerge from the van fully clothed, with Greta confident in Elliot’s blue suit and Elliott equally pleased to be wearing Greta’s peach party dress. The cross-dressed Greta is self-assured at the party after embracing an adult version of herself that fits. She is unified with her girlhood self, as is evident when her skivvy-clad young self and her teen self fall asleep together. Yet to do so, and find a contented relationship with her mother and sister, she has had to grapple with the uncomfortable realities of adulthood and conquer the wolves who prey on teen girls.
Girl Asleep

In the tradition of subversive feminist writers such as Angela Carter, Myers’ film recasts the fairy tale script in which girls in peril must be rescued by a handsome prince. Instead Girl Asleep depicts a heroine who turns to another girl – and looks within herself – for strength and protection; she is a heroine who also fails to swoon and feel appropriately validated when an attractive man pays her sexual attention. Myers reveals that for girls in a world in which a woman’s crowning achievement can be reduced to the appetising presentation of asparagus rolls the realm of internal fantasy can be the answer to defying convention.

 

About The Author

Dr Michelle J. Smith is an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Deakin University. One of her primary research interests is girlhood, particularly in the Victorian period. She is the author of Empire in British Girls’ Literature: Imperial Girls, 1880-1915 (Palgrave, 2011) and co-editor of Colonial Girlhood in Literature, Culture and History, 1840-1950 (Palgrave, 2014) and Girls’ School Stories, 1749-1929 (Routledge, 2013). Michelle also writes on gender and feminism as a columnist for The Conversation.